Domestic Violence and the Doula

You hope it will never happen to you. That sinking realization that something isn’t right with the family you’re serving. Maybe you’re noticing a lot of fear and control. Maybe it’s bruises. Maybe you witness an incident. It can be a tough situation to figure out, but it’s sadly common during the upheaval that happens when a new baby is joining the family.

If you start thinking that something is up, chances are you are going to want to help. As you do, keep in mind a few important things:

  • Pregnancy is a time when things shift. This can mean there is some unpredictability. Violence might escalate, decrease, or remain unchanged.
  • Even past abuse can impact current thinking and behavior.
  • The abused has lots of experience managing the abuser, so trust in their understanding of the situation. Your “help” might not be welcomed or helpful.
  • Many abusers are very charismatic and charming. If someone tells you they are being abused, don’t let that charm and charisma fool you.
  • Your own safety matters as well.
  • Abuse isn’t always hitting. It can be emotional, financial, and social as well.
  • Leaving an abusive relationship is a very dangerous time. Your client might not be up for that increased danger so close to birth.
  • It’s not just romantic partners. Parents, siblings, and other family members can be controlling or abusive. Men or women can be abusers.

So tread carefully. Be someone they can trust. This comes from honoring their requests, listening without challenging or disbelieving, and being accessible. In figuring out what to do, the number one thing I recommend is that YOU call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. They can be very helpful in walking you through the best ways to help.

Graphic of the hotline contact information

Some other tips particularly applicable to doulas:

Acknowledge they are in a difficult situation – and that there’s no easy or simple way to resolve it. Basically you want to be the complete opposite of saying “why don’t you just leave?”

Don’t assume anything, ASK – Don’t assume your client wants to leave a relationship. Don’t assume calling the police will be helpful. Don’t assume anything. Instead, ask “How can I help?” or “Would it help if I….”

Be non-judgemental – Questions like “How could you let it get this far?” or “Why didn’t you just….” come across really poorly. As do statements like “I would NEVER put up with that!” Remember that these situations tend to gradually devolve, and you can’t possibly know how you would handle their life.

Talk about other things outside of the abuse – Remember that your client is a whole person, not just a victim. Get to know that whole person.

Talk about BEHAVIORS not people. Stick to saying things like “The language she uses when she talks to you seems to be undermining your confidence. Would you like to suggest other wording?” instead of “Your mom is really unsupportive!”

Maintain boundaries – not only is this important for your own mental health, it models to the families you work with what proper boundaries can look like. You should remember to be physically and emotionally safe while connecting with and supporting your client.

Be a doula, not a rescuer – Uneven power dynamics are a hallmark of many abusive relationships. Make sure that your relationship with your client does not become one where you take over and have more power than your client. Always, always, always respect their autonomy.

Take care of yourself – It can be emotionally exhausting to support families struggling to have healthy relationships. Make sure you take care of yourself.

Be aware of local resources – and have current, updated information on hand in case you need it. You never expect to need it, so it would be a good idea to always have it on hand. Maybe a note in your phone or something.

I sincerely hope that you never experience this with any of your clients. But remember that you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. They can help you navigate it!

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